Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Turchin's terrifying predictions

Peter Turchin rose to fame when his 2010 Nature article predicted the unrest in the US in the early 2000s. His book ‘End Times’ has created waves in the commentariat, as we head towards tricky elections in the US, UK and Europe this year. 

He brings science to history, not just the usual narrative approach, using huge data sets that flag up key indicators for political instability:

1. Decline in real wages - Tick
2. Growing gap between rich and poor - Tick
3. Overproduction of graduates - Tick
4. Declining public trust - Tick
5. Exploding public debt - Tick

As the ‘wealth pump’ pushes money to the top of the pyramid, the elite, wealth is pushed from the poor to the rich, accompanied by the disappointment of even middle class aspirants (graduates), who have also become part of the precariat.

Graduate class

The poor have suffered badly here (more later) but the credentialed class are also being left behind, as the pyramid stretches upwards and wealth accumulates at higher and higher levels.

For graduates it has become a game of ‘musical chairs’ where you pay a huge sum to buy a ticket to play the game (University costs), but the number of chairs (graduate level jobs) remain the same. As the number of players increases year on year, massively in just a few decades, supply way exceeds demand. So graduates have to up their game and pay for another even more expensive ticket to get a Masters. Even worse, those who go on to do PhDs find there are no academic jobs available, as again supply has exceeded demand for many years. Graduates in the social sciences and humanities are particularly vulnerable but Turchin’s point is that, for a rapidly increasing graduate population there is a precarious future and lots of debt. This may be exacerbated by AI, as it eats into cognitive work, so has that group as its sweet spot.

This frustrated aspirant class, for Turchin, is dangerous. Always isolated from working class people, they have little in common with the non-graduate class or ideas like collective bargaining and trade unions. They have the time and support from their propertied parents to become activists and protestors and often pick up causes on campus around cancel culture, climate change, transgender issues and social justice. Poverty is not the problem, recognition of identity is.

His hypothesis predicts a battle royale among the aspirant graduate class for declining opportunities and rewards. We have seen falls in enrolment in the US of 13 consecutive years, a flight from the humanities and negative attitudes towards Higher Education in the face of rapidly increasing costs. In an interesting addition. 

Turchin points out that cheating has also risen, with the sharp elbows of the middle class become ever more desperate to get their children into the right ‘brand’ colleges. Non-attendance at lectures and schools has also risen from the disengaged, disaffected and disconnected. The social contract seems to be breaking down, as the precariat realise that education is no longer a route to social mobility. It may even harm your chances, as you do not earn for many years and accumulate debt

Working class (Deplorables)

More seriously, there is a break in how rewards are distributed with the poorer getting poorer, that’s the 64% in the US without a college degree. His data on this is exemplary, along with his analysis of how the graduate class has turned their back on these people  - the famous ‘deplorables’. So the split economically and culturally, between the graduate and working class gets more and more extreme. What’s more, the social mobility of the working class has got worse as the challenge of paying for their children’s college education has moved further away from them. The wages of the educated with graduate jobs (the professions) grew, while the wages of the uneducated shrank. 

They were the victims of austerity after the banks collapsed, socialism for the rich – capitalism for the poor. Globalisation meant outsourcing to cheaper countries or importing cheaper labour. Collective bargaining was undermined and corporates restructured to save costs by shipping out, moving location or automation. Of course, the winners claim it was all down to their effort. Bullshit, it was. It was engineered by that same graduate class from their graduate business schools and MBAs. The professional classes, in positions of power across the entire system in politics, private schools, higher education, media and the arts redesigned the system around themselves and took it all.

And that, my friends, is how we got Trump… and Brexit… and Milei… and Meloni… and Wilders… and a swing to the far right across the whole of Europe from Spain to Sweden and Finland. 

I am not wholly convinced by the pure historicism, although he avoids simplistic cyclical theories, such as Schumpeter or political dialectics of Marxism. But what impresses is Turchin’s marshalling of data and wins on prediction and there is a LOT more in this book, especially his historical examples.

What is worrying is how easily we all march lock-step into the future, even when the signs of discontent are ringing in our ears. We are like those cartoon figures who run off the edge of the cliff and hang smiling in mid-air, before the fall. We don't adjust or adapt, we simply behave according to the groupthink of the socio-economic group we find ourselves in. The trick is to sit back, look, listen and read people like Turchin. You don't have to agree with him but it is voices like his that at least provide substance to predictions, not about 10nyears from now but next year!

The jury may be out but if he continues to predict crimes, the jury may turn out to be superfluous.

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